On March 21, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) responded to allegations that Republican supporters of immigration reform were betraying Republican ideals and dooming the Republican Party. His reaction shows the important shift needed in the Republican Party to bring it in line with the American public and the Republican base.
The traditional Republican response to immigration is espoused by pundits like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. In their minds, immigration will bring down the country and destroy the Republican Party. Speaking at CPAC, Coulter said, "If amnesty goes through, America becomes California and no Republican will ever win another national election … I’m now a single-issue voter against amnesty." Limbaugh has attributed all Republican involvement in reform to electoral fear: "The Republican participation in this is taking place largely because they believe if they don't do it, they will never win the presidency again because they will never get Hispanic votes."
He is not entirely wrong, though Ms. Coulter is. A Latino Decision study has found that 32% of Latinos are more likely to vote for the GOP if it supports immigration reform, and 39% are less likely to vote Republican if Republicans oppose immigration reform. 70% of Latinos favor a clear pathway to citizenship, which means if Republicans want to win elections, they will need to rewrite their immigration policies — even if the country "becomes California."
Which brings the debate to Sen. Paul and other Republicans who supposedly got "suckered into an agreement." Rand Paul is trying to approach immigration rationally. Regarding the terms of so-called amnesty and accusations by the likes of Coulter and Limbaugh that he is betraying the GOP, Paul said "I've got a news flash for those who want to call people names on amnesty: what we have now is de facto amnesty. We have 11 million people here. They've been here, some of them, for a decade or more. No one is telling them to go home, no one's sending them home."
Paul is right. The same Latino Decisions study found that 63% of Latinos know someone who is here undocumented, but only 39% know of someone who has been deported or detained by immigration. The numbers, though, do not make his perspective more welcome to the GOP establishment.
What is Paul looking for that seems so abhorrent to these Republican thought leaders? He wants to put people to work: "If you want to work, we’ll find a place for you, but that doesn’t mean that you get special privileges." He does not want to coddle illegal immigrants or reward people for breaking the law. He wants to reform immigration policy, because, as he explains it, "We have plenty of work visas to give every year. We’re not giving them out because the process is too onerous."
Maybe Rush Limbaugh is right that the Republican party will split while attempting to reach out to new demographics. However, he is wrong that the party would be weakened by such a division. The party is going to lose if it continues opposing minorities, reform, and compromise. The divided party, the party that supported reform, would be stronger and backed by more of the public.
America is already seeing that reality in the election returns. 71% of Latinos voted Democrat in 2012. Only 27% voted Republican. Latinos are not the only ones who think Republicans need a change. 62% of Americans believe that the Republican Party is out of touch with American people, and 52% think it is too extreme. 50% think the Republican Party is not looking out for the country’s future.
Even Republicans think the party needs to change. The 72% of Americans that support allowing undocumented immigrants to become legal residents or citizens after meeting residency requirements are not just Democrats and Independents. 59% of Republicans favor it as well.
The Republican Party is facing a moment now in which it needs to decide if it is going to be the party that opposed immigration reform and belied immigrants until the party lost all relevancy and Ann Coulter’s nightmares come true, or if it is going to be the party that led the way to comprehensive immigration reform and won conservative minority voters. Coulter and Limbaugh represent the past, when the party could win solely on the votes of white men, and they know it. Paul, Rubio, and other Republican supporters of immigration reform offer a future, where the Republican Party can remain relevant and innovative. The people have spoken, both in the elections and the polls; the question is if their representatives can follow them.